Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Suggestions, Please!

Well, I've now tried this assignment I call an "article report" for two semesters.*  The first semester was an out and out experiment, and it sort of worked for some students, and not for others.  This semester, I'm just frustrated.  It's not working well for more students, and it's a pain to grade.

So I'm looking for suggestions.

What sorts of assignments do you give to junior level courses that don't have (m)any prerequisite requirements, but fulfill major requirements?

I teach lit courses.  Few if any of the students have had any early British lit, or early lit period, when they take the course.**  The majors have often had theory.  The junior level courses are basically umbrella type courses.

What I'm looking for are assignments that help students build towards writing lit type research papers, but that don't require those skills.  So, I'm looking to build skills in one or more areas: asking good research questions, finding and reading "secondary" sources well (lit crit work, theoretical work, historical work), finding and reading "primary" sources well (early modern, theoretical), writing arguments about texts.

I want students to think better about what they use as evidence and how they use it, especially.

So, what sorts of assignments do you give that will 1.  help students learn (some of) the skills to write real research papers, and 2.  not require much background in the field.

How much writing do you have students do at this level, realistically?  How much reading?

*  The "article report" asked them to read a "secondary" source carefully, paying attention to what it uses as evidence and how it uses the evidence.

** We have no "survey" sorts of courses/requirements.  We do have sophomore level courses that look part of a field, but they don't do survey sorts of stuff.  So, instead of Beowulf to Virginia Woolf in a year, our students may take one or two lower-level courses looking at Shakespeare, Women Writers, Asian American lit, 19th century British Novels, and so on.  They're way better experiences for instructors AND students than most big survey courses ever seem to be, but the downside is that our students have no sense of literary development and change over time, nor of historical change over time.  So they don't have a framework.  If I ask them what "Romanticism" is, they generally have no clue.  On the other hand, they don't start out hating Chaucer.


  1. Last year I taught a junior-level class on the history of crime. The students had four written assignments during the term. Each was 1000 words but each was designed to build a different skill. The first project focused on getting them to understand all of what was going on in the primary sources. The second project asked for textual analysis of how the same crime/criminal was represented and reported in two different versions. The third project required some basic quantification and analysis of change (or not) over time. The last project had them build a research question,find several cases to work with that and essay a preliminary analysis. Next time I'll slim down the first report to a brief assignment that asks them to "fill in the blanks" on an analytic worksheet because the task wasn't really at the same level as the other three.

    Their assigned readings included two books (a textbook and a fun monograph) along with eight articles and however many cases they needed to get through to write their reports.

    I provide guides for each assignments (supplemented by in-class workshops) so that students see what's the point of each. I find that guidance inspires a few more students to actually reflect upon the tasks and skills they've tackled by the end of the course and that's pleasant!

  2. 1. Annotated bibliographies with original and detailed summaries. I find these immensely helpful with my own scattered brain. Students don't see the value unless they're using these sources in a research paper. I always have them use them in the big paper.

    2. In-class writing -- Better than a pop quiz. I give them a prompt like "compare/contrast these two speeches, noting the similar phrasing of blah blah blah." They get to use the text while writing for about 20 minutes. If they didn't read, it is clear, even if they use the book.

    3. In-class reading of scholarship. They get a half hour to read. We talk about it for the rest of class. Then they go home and write about it. They have a hard time understanding scholarship on their own sometimes. This method helps because they get some feedback and discussion about it before they have to write about it. In-class reading means the reading will actually get done. It's not a waste of class time at all! They can also ask questions while it's fresh in their minds.

    4. Focus on close reading first. I have them do an essay that's just close reading first in Shakespeare and work up to research papers. Their first paper has to trace one word in a play and do close reading associated with that one word. It's brilliant. I may have gotten that idea from Sisyphus. I'm not so brilliant to have come up with that myself. The next paper is close reading one scene. Then the next paper is the bigger research assignment. It worked so well last time that I'll definitely do it again.

    Good luck! It's hard to come up with something that works for all students but much of this works well for me!

  3. I have one that works super well for me... not in literature but gen ed. Let me know if you want it and I'll email it to you.